Television

Production value

For whatever reason, Lisa and I have decided to sample more new shows this season than we normally do–Ringer, The Playboy Club, Pan Am, Revenge, Terra Nova, Up All Night and a couple of others.  They’ve been okay so far, but nothing has been really standout so far.

But one thing has been consistent–poor production values.  The pilot of Ringer had a scene of two people out in a speed boat, with absolutely horrible bluescreening (or greenscreening, I suppose) of the background behind the boat, and then, when one of them jumped off the boat into the sea, a splashing sound that was entirely out of sync with the splash itself.  Later in the same episode, a particularly weird shot had Sarah Michelle Gellar’s face filling the right half of the screen, while the left half contained the crowded theatre that was behind her–except the two elements looked like they’d been extraordinarily cheaply composited together, like the cover of an urban fantasy or teen novel.  What made this really odd was that the previous shot had established quite clearly that Gellar in fact really was sitting in amongst the crowd.

The Playboy Club had a ride in the car that, again, had a horribly greenscreened background, worse than you’ll see in most sitcoms.

And Revenge featured two sequences of what were meant to be other footage: first, an excerpt from a news report, and second, spy footage shot through someone’s window, and then enhanced to reveal the faces of the two people who had been unknowingly caught on film having an affair.  Except no attempt was made to make either sequence look like it was alien to the programme.  Both were shot on the exact same film stock and given the exact same filter as the show’s general footage–news footage of a trial, or a zoomed-in, enhanced image of two people kissing, looked just as defined and crisp as every other moment of the show.

Seriously, it’s like TV is warping back to 1990.

I’m assuming there’s a general trend behind this–budgetary pressures or time constraints.  But it’s really distracting, and it’s not something I want to see continue.

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Dragon*Con

Eleventh Doctor and Amy Me and Idris

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks for me.  Earthquake one day.  The next day, I left on an unexpected trip to England, which then got unexpectedly protracted by two days.  I finally did get back, at ten p.m. Tuesday night.  Then, at nine a.m. Thursday, we headed out again.  First, we spent the morning at Boy’s orientation for kindergarten, meeting his teacher and seeing his classroom.

Then we set out directly for Atlanta, driving eleven hours that afternoon and evening and two hours the following morning, and by ten o’clock Friday we were at Dragon*Con.

Cosplaying children: soldier and princess Snake Eyes and the Baronness

This was our second year at the con, and I deliberately set out to make sure that we had a chance to have some experiences this year that we hadn’t had last year.  The first of those was getting Boy down there to take a look around.  (Last year, he spent the weekend touring Atlanta with his grandparents.  We’d planned for him to come down one afternoon, but he never made it.  I’m genuinely unsure whether his decidedly non-geek grandparents simply never found the time, or whether they were somehow trying to shield him from the geekery.)

So Friday afternoon I headed back to our hotel in Dunwoody, picked Boy up and headed into the city with him on the subway.  He was excited about going, but I was worried that once he got there in amongst the crowds and the cosplayers that he’d freak out.

Boy with the characters of Strawberry Shortcake

I needn’t have been concerned–he loved every second of it.  To the point of walking right up to Darth Vaders and Godzillas, tapping them to get their attention and asking to have his picture taken with them.  (We’d run into an Eleventh Doctor and River Song on the train, so I think that primed him on what to expect.)  Star Wars characters, Doctor Who characters, Disney characters–he got excited any time we saw any of them.

Saturday morning, I took him to the DragonCon parade.  The crowd in front of us let him through to the front so he could sit on the kerb, and again, he had a great time–especially when a pair of Ghostbusters in the parade mistook him for a poltergeist and attempted to set their trap for him.

The Ninth Doctor, Rose, the Tenth Doctor and Boy

Then Lisa took him with her to a Phineas and Ferb panel where, after initially being somewhat shy, he apparently not only started raising his hand to offer his own comments, but eventually refused to put it down, raising his hand for his next question or comment as soon as he had finished his last one.  After that, we took him to the lightsabre training for kids programme, where he had a blast learning how to whack other kids with sticks.

(In retrospect, maybe that wasn’t the best panel to take to him to three days before the first day of kindergarten.)

On a trip to Kings Dominion a couple of weeks ago, we got Boy a double-ended lightsabre.  I told him I wanted to take a picture of him wielding it, and he so perfectly dropped into character for the photo that I was convinced then that he’d enjoy cosplaying at DragonCon.

Boy with lightsabre

We therefore got him a gas mask, and though he wore it around the house all week (really creeping Lisa out by asking, “Are you my mummy?“), he proved entirely unwilling to don it once we got to the con.  I think perhaps next year we’ll try him with a costume that doesn’t require covering his face–I don’t know whether he felt like he was missing too much with the gas mask goggles on, or he was simply too aware of the fact that he was in fancy dress, but I do think the facemask was the root of his problem.  Friends have suggested he should dress as Harry Potter, but I’m inclined to wait on that until he at least knows who Harry Potter is.  Perhaps we’ll see about making him a miniature Doctor costume.

The other thing I wanted to do this DragonCon was sample a more varied array of programming.  This largely came about because of the con’s new smartphone app.  There’s so much different programming going on all the time at DragonCon that last year, using the huge, unwieldy paper grid, I basically just ended up going to most of the BritTrack panels, with a few big celebrity panels thrown in.

Eleventh Doctor and Amy Two young women as Robin and Batman

But with the app, I was able to see every panel for a given time in one place (critically, I was also able to see every panel’s description), and I could tag all the different ones that caught my eye.  So I ended up at the Star Trek track, the American Sci Fi Media track, the SF/Fantasy Literature track, the Alternate History track and a couple of others.

And it highlighted to me how Dragon is really about a half-dozen cons all coexisting side by side.  (Which is, obviously, the secret of its success–it attracts so much enthusiasm because of its huge population.)

Like on Sunday night, when I went to Michael Stackpole’s panel on Robert E. Howard’s original Conan the Barbarian stories (a panel that convinced me I finally need to crack open that copy of The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian I’ve had for several years).  I’d never been to any programming down in the Lit track’s little cave.  It turned out to be on the fourth floor down in the Hyatt.

Slave Leia Me with a pirate wench

The first floor one enters in the Hyatt has the hotel bar, the street entrance, reception, and the bridges to the Marriott and the food court/subway station, so it’s packed with con-goers and hotel guests and cosplayers.  Only the Marriott is busier or louder or more crowded or slower moving.  Then you go down a floor, and you’re in a big lobby giving access to another street entrance, to one of the con’s big ballrooms, and to the screening room for the con film festival.  So it’s almost as busy as upstairs.

The third floor down has some gaming tables and the comic book Artists’ Alley, so it has some much smaller, dedicated crowds for those two things, plus a bit of overflow from the two floors above.

And then you get down to the bottom floor, where the lit track is, and it’s honestly like stepping into another world.  Emptier.  Quieter.  Much older, with almost no one under forty.  And with many fewer cosplayers.  From one perspective, it’s a quiet retreat where people are celebrating the roots of where almost everything else at DragonCon comes from.  From another, it’s a bunch of people who are actually missing what most of us think of when we think of DragonCon.

Clockwork android Jessica Rabbit and me

Two last good bits I want to make sure to mention.  The first was Sylvester McCoy’s panel on Friday morning, where I got to hear Sylvester both play the spoons and do a dramatic reading of Matt Smith’s speech from “The Pandorica Opens”.  And the other was at the small Red Dwarf panel on Sunday morning, where the closest thing to a celebrity was the guy who voiced the toaster on the programme (actually, he was only on for three episodes, so it would be more accurate to describe him as the guy who originated the voice of the toaster)–who actually turned out to be one of the funniest, most engaging panelists I’ve ever encountered at a convention.

And in closing, an Ariel cosplayer.  These pictures were taken, respectively, Friday night and Saturday night, and I didn’t realise they had been of the same girl until yesterday.  Well-played, Ariel.  Well-played.

Ariel and Boy Ariel

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Adaptation

ETA: more books to the list, as I think of them

The other day, I got in a discussion with @S_cerevisiae on the Twitter about whether or not to show the first Harry Potter movie to a five year old. Boy has been growing intrigued by the Boy Wizard because of the massive advertising campaign for Harry Potter 8, but Lisa and I have decided not to show him the first film (yet) because, six weeks before kindergarten starts, we don’t want to show him a movie about how school is really cliquish and kids are really nasty to the kids from the other cliques.

A really good point that got made during the discussion was the idea of waiting till the kids are old enough to first read the books before seeing the films, duplicating as much as possible the experience that we who are old enough to read the books upon publication have had.

That got me thinking about other, older children’s books that have been adapted into movies, and my experience with them. There are, to be sure, a few books that I probably haven’t read because I’d already seen the movie–I’m sure I’d have read Treasure Island by now if I hadn’t watched the movie so often as a child. (Though I do recall poring over an illustrated children’s abridgement of it when I was very little.)

But very often, that’s not the way it works. I think, rather, that when we do it right, it’s the movies themselves that keep the kids coming back to the books, generation after generation. So I’ve been making a list: books I had finished by the time I finished middle school, that I had read because I saw the movie or the TV series.

The list is, I’m sure, incomplete. But it contains classics of children’s literature; it contains classics of all literature; and it contains some major twentieth century fiction. It also contains dozens of Star Trek tie in novels, which, rather than listing all individually, I’ve simply gathered under “dozens of Star Trek tie in novels”. They might not have been edifying literature, but they had me reading an hour after bedtime, the fingers of my free hand poised over the lightswitch in case I heard my parents coming upstairs and had to turn it off. And I don’t think there’s any better way to turn a child into a lifelong reader.

Swallows and Amazons
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Prince Caspian; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The Prydain books, because of The Black Cauldron
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator

The Three Musketeers, because of Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds
Ivanhoe

Shogun
Dune
I, Claudius
Jurassic Park
Dozens of Star Trek tie-in novels

I’m sure I can’t be the only one. Anyone else get led to their favourite childhood books by the movies?

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Revelation about "Revelation"

Over on the Livejournal Doctor Who forum, a New Who viewer has asked for recommendations about how to introduce themselves to Classic Who, and I responded with my customary observation that “Revelation of the Daleks” makes a great starting point because, in my opinion, it has so much in common with New Who (or rather, Davies-era Who). pbristow asked me to expand on that, but rightly pointed out that it could be a bit spoilery and that that thread might not be the best place for it.

So I figured here was as good a place for it as any. Correlations between “Revelation of the Daleks” (1985) and the RTD era of Doctor Who (2005-2010):

*It’s an exploration of the funeral parlour of the future!, just as the RTD era gave us the TV studio of the future! (twice in one series), the hospital of the future!, the traffic jam of the future!, cruise liner of the future! and the library of the future!

*Alexi Sayle’s radio DJ who spends all his time playing rock and roll music to dead people. To me, he’s a pure RTD story element, both because of his ridiculousness and because he’s from the deep space in the far future (I don’t remember if it’s even established that he’s definitely human), and yet he’s obsessed with twentieth-century or twenty-first-century Earth–in this case, rock and roll music. Just like the iPod-jukebox in “The End of the World”; just like two-thousandth-century Earth being caught in the grips of Big Brother, The Weakest Link and What Not to Wear hysteria; just like the legalistic devotion to disclaimers in “New Earth” and non-disclosure agreements in “Silence in the Library”.

*The direction. There are vanishingly few Classic Who stories that I’d describe as stylish–“The Web Planet”, “Earthshock”, “Caves of Androzani” and Revelation are the only ones I can come up with off the top of my head. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that half of those are the stories directed by Graeme Harper, or that Graeme Harper subsequently became the only Classic Who director who showed up in New Who. It’s such a joy to see the director actually using the camera as a mode of artistic expression rather than just as a way to transfer the script into recorded pictures–the most obvious instance of that is the pedestal pan (not actually a pedestal pan, but achieved through post-production) showing us a whole series of shots of various identical corridors (actually the same corridor set, obvs) scrolling past the camera like stills on a reel of film.

*The character-driven drama. I don’t want to hang my hat too much on this, because too often in New/Classic debates we end up caricaturing Classic Who as all plot/no character and New Who as all character/no plot, which does a disservice to both. But in Revelation, plot is secondary to character in a way that’s rarely true in Classic Who (or the Moffatt era, for that matter) but that we see over and over in the RTD era. What engages the viewer isn’t what’s happening, but rather the interaction between the various characters, so much so that it’s almost surprising when all the different threads weave together at the end. Closely related:

*The cast of outlandish grotesques. The Don-Quixote-and-Sancho aging knight and his squire. The creepy, womanising funeral director who refuses to pursue only one woman, the unattractive girl who’s devoted to him. The Laurel and Hardy workers who turn into quietly gleeful sadists when given the opportunity. This isn’t the only time Classic Who hung its stories on oddballs like this, but unlike certain other attempts (I’m looking at you, seasons seventeen and twenty-four), Revelation doesn’t promptly descend into pure farce. Instead (and this is to me what makes it dark comedy, rather than simply “comedy”), it continues to treat these oddballs as real people, fully capable of either tragedy or menace. Just like the blue people in “The End of the World” or Cassandra or the farting Slitheen or the CEO in “Planet of the Ood” or the working class couple in “Voyage of the Damned”.

I’d seen Revelation long before, but when I watch it again when it came out on DVD, now having seen however many series of RTD Who, I found I couldn’t escape the parallels.

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The Three Musketeers

The Three MusketeersMixing a bit of seventeenth-century French history with a great deal of invention, Alexandre Dumas tells the tale of young D’Artagnan and his musketeer comrades Porthos, Athos and Aramis. Together they fight to foil the schemes of the brilliant, dangerous Cardinal Richelieu, who pretends to support the king while plotting to advance his own power. Bursting with swirling swordplay, swooning romance, and unforgettable figures such as the seductively beautiful but deadly femme fatale, Milady, and D’Artagnan’s equally beautiful love, Madame Bonacieux, The Three Musketeers continues, after a century and a half of continuous publication, to define the genre of swashbuckling romance and historical adventure.

I love The Three Musketeers. It’s one of my favourite books–my 35th favourite book, to be specific. I love the story of d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis. (My grandfather loves to complain about the fact that the book follows the adventures of four musketeers.)

But whenever I picture the story in my head, d’Artagnan isn’t a dashing young Frenchman. He’s a grey-furred beagle in a bright red suit.

I’ve known the story of The Three Musketeers my whole life. I’ve loved it my whole life. Because it got told to me, when I was four or five years old, in the 26 episodes of Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds.

Dogtanian and the three MuskehoundsI used to play Dogtanian in the back garden with the kids from across the road. (I was always Dogtanian.) For a five-year-old, that cartoon retelling–which, as far as I can tell, never aired in the United States–perfectly captured all the excitement and adventure of Alexandre Dumas’s story.

I read the novel The Three Musketeers for the first time when I was thirteen. It was pretty thick prose at that age, though I still loved it. But I’m absolutely serious when I say that I pictured d’Artagnan as a beagle. And Milady de Winter as a cat, and Athos, Porthos and Aramis as they were depicted in the cartoon. It even extends to any time Cardinal de Richelieu in historical accounts–in my head, the Thirty Years War was totally masterminded by an anthropomorphic doberman in a cardinal’s garb.

If you’re reading this somewhere that you can’t see the video embedded below, check it out at the original post:

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The five stories that should be exterminated

The human Dalek SekJust as the Daleks have given us some of the best Doctor Who over the years, they’ve also been witness to some of the poorest. Here, then, are my five least favourite Dalek stories. But when it comes to Doctor Who, it seems nothing can ever be wholly without merit, so for each story, I’ve also added a brief section at the end, detailing those little moments of pleasure mixed in amongst all the awfulness.

An invisible Dalek5. “Planet of the Daleks”. Jon Pertwee (third Doctor), season 10, 1973. Written by Terry Nation; directed by David Maloney.

There’s nothing really horrible about “Planet of the Daleks”, which is why it’s down here at no. 5 rather than further up on the list. It’s just that it doesn’t really work–it’s relentless mediocre. The central premise of Dalek research into invisibility is a bit silly, but that’s hardly enough to scuppered pretty much every other Who story ever made. The invisible aliens themselves are bit silly, though they get considerably worse when they make themselves visible by donning the purple pelts of skinned animals–pelts so shiny and clean and silky that they genuinely look like an army of Grimaces.

What redeems it: I do rather like the character of Rebec, mostly because of the actress, I think–Jane How has some sort of very watchable quality about her. There’s also the Doctor’s final speech to the Thals, about not glamourising the experience of war.

The new Daleks confront the Doctor4. “Victory of the Daleks”. Matt Smith (eleventh Doctor), season 31, 2010. Written by Mark Gatiss; directed by Andrew Gunn.

When it first aired, I talked about the problems “Victory of the Daleks” created for itself by attempting to shoehorn its premise–a very good premise, on its own–into the limiting formula of having to accommodate one of New Who’s “celebrity historicals”; this only gets compounded by the fact that the historical celebrity in question is thoroughly underserved by the story. And when you bring in Sir Winston Churchill and then treat him like this, you’re always going to lose my sympathy. But what really knocks the story down into “five worst” territory is the unveiling of the new, redesigned Daleks. I don’t mind the obviously marketing-minded decision to give us a rainbow of new Daleks each with their own candy flavour. I don’t mind the weird, blocky mounting for the gun and sucker. What I mind is that they’re humpbacked. Perhaps you have to see them in person, handle them to really understand just how ungainly they are–certainly the moment that drove it home for me was finding a red drone Dalek on the shelf at my local comic book store. They are seriously carrying so much junk in their trunk that they genuinely look like they’re supposed to be played like a panto horse, with one guy running the front and a second running the arse.

Ironside DalekWhat redeems it: It’s a little bit ironic (don’t ya think?) that in the story that gives us the naffest Daleks ever, it also gives us pretty much the coolest Daleks ever–the Ironsides. Seriously–how can you beat Daleks painted in olive drab, with tiny Union Jacks emblazoned on them, their ear-light things covered over to stop them being spotted from the air, utility belts draped over their shoulders? The prospect of Spitfires flying into orbit to duel with a Dalek spaceship is also pretty damn cool.

Dracula vs a Dalek3. “The Chase”. William Hartnell (first Doctor), season 3, 1965. Written by Terry Nation; directed by Richard Martin.

The Daleks’ third outing, in which they build their own cardboard doorway time machine and pursue our intrepid TARDIS crew through time and space, isn’t so much a cohesive story as a series of set pieces. We see the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicki flee from the Daleks on the desert planet Aridius; we see them flee from the Daleks atop the Empire State Building in 1965; we see them flee from the Daleks aboard the Mary Celeste; we see them flee from the Daleks in an animatronic funhouse; and finally we see them flee from the Daleks on the jungle planet Mechanus. Real low points include the bizarre sight of the Daleks fleeing in terror from Dracula and Frankenstein, and the android “replica” of the Doctor the Daleks construct to infiltrate and murder the group. This replica looks absolutely nothing like William Hartnell, but even if we’re willing to play along and pretend that he’s identical to the Doctor, we’re then treated to the sight of Barbara and Vicki eventually realising which Doctor is real and which is fake for no good reason.

What redeems it: Peter Purves’s Alabama yokel, confronted by a Dalek on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, walking in a full circle around the creature, and the stationary Dalek’s eyestalk rotating 360 degrees to follow him, is an undeniably endearing moment; indeed, the Daleks’ appearance at the Empire State Building in the first place brings a smile now, since we learnt in 2007 that it was actually the Daleks who constructed the great skyscraper in the first place (see below). Also fun is the signage the camera pans across just before we fade away from the monster funhouse: Frankenstein’s House of Horrors, $10; Festival of Ghana, 1996–cancelled by order of Peking. Just how many distinct fears of the future can we find in that brief message? We’ve got China dominating Africa; we’ve got the British Commonwealth using American currency.

A Dalek flanked by a pair of pig slaves2. “Daleks in Manhattan”. David Tennant (tenth Doctor), season 29, 2007. Written by Helen Raynor; directed by James Strong.

It’s just silly, from the title onwards. It also suffers from the fact that the central point of its story, the event on which the cliffhanger separating the two episodes of the story hinges (episode two is entitled “Evolution of the Daleks”) isn’t actually an interesting one–nobody particularly wants to see a “human-Dalek hybrid”. The very appeal of the Daleks is that they aren’t human. It’s actually a shame that most of the hybrid prosthetic is so well done, because it’s completely undercut by those jiggling, twitching vestigial phalli dangling off its cheeks.

What redeems it: I guess there’s just inherent comedy value in Daleks turning their heads, because the moment that always elicits a smile in this disappointing story is when the two Daleks beneath the sewer drain draw together to start discussing treason, and one of them actually looks over its shoulder to make sure they’re not being overheard.

The Movellans1. “Destiny of the Daleks”. Tom Baker (fourth Doctor), season 17, 1979. Written by Terry Nation; directed by Ken Grieve.

Tom Baker is the longest-serving actor in Doctor Who’s title role, but his tenure coincided with the biggest dearth of Dalek stories the programme has so far experienced: in seven years, he fought the pepperpots only twice. And yet with these stories (the last two Dalek scripts Terry Nation contributed), he managed both the Daleks’ best story and their worst. Nicholas Briggs, who voices both the Daleks and the Cybermen in New Who, has called “Destiny” the Dalek story where “Terry Nation forgot the Daleks aren’t robots”. This seems an accurate summation–and it’s rather odd, considering that at one point in the story the Doctor actually picks up and handles a Kaled Mutant. But the Daleks depicted in “Destiny” are coldly logical machines, who need to find some foreign source from which they can inject ingenuity into their strategic planning. They’re opposed by an equally cold and logical robot warrior race, the Movellans–a more poorly realised “warrior robot” race than whom is difficult to imagine, with their lithe, beautiful bodies, spandex uniforms and glowing pink guns. The Dalek props themselves are fallen to pieces. And then, again as Nick Briggs points out, we’ve got the extras playing the Daleks’ slave workers–extras who smile slightly as the Daleks select them from extermination, then don’t so much fall down when shot as look around for a comfortable place to sit down.

What redeems it: As poor as I think season seventeen is–and it’s one of Doctor Who’s two worst seasons ever–it does have the advantage of having been script edited by Douglas Adams, and every one of its stories contains lovely repartee in dialogue. There’s also the undeniable chemistry between Tom Baker and Lalla Ward, which infects all of the second Romana’s stories–it’s no surprise these two ended up (very briefly) married. But this is pretty minor stuff when set against the consummate awfulness of the story–as you’d expect from the very worst Dalek story ever.

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The Scholar and the Concubine
Words yesterday: 2018
Words total: 11,331

Time spent writing: 2pm-2.45, 9pm-10.30
Reason for stopping: End of chapter
Darling: He did not speak so brusquely out of disrespect, but rather because he was used to commanding men, and not at all to conversing with women.
Words that boggled Word: gartered
New words today: urbane, handmaid, wimple

The five stories that will exterminate you

The Dalek levitatesThe other day I picked the Daleks as my favourite sci-fi villain ever. There’s a lot I love about the Daleks, but one of the big things is that they have been with Doctor Who through the whole shebang. They came in with the very second story, “The Daleks”, and were responsible for turning the show into a hit in the first place; and they were the monster in the most recent story, the season 31 finale, “The Big Bang”. And in all the intervening 31 seasons, they’ve been the Doctor’s most constant adversary; they only period they’ve been absent for any length of time was when we had only a single Dalek story from season thirteen to season twenty, season seventeen’s “Destiny of the Daleks”.

Because they’re so pervasive throughout Doctor Who, then, they have almost as wide a range of stories–in terms of quality–as the series itself does; there are Dalek stories I’d consider to be amongst Doctor Who’s best stories, and Dalek stories I’d consider amongst its worst. So I have picked out my five favourite and my five least favourite Dalek stories. Today I’m going to go through my five favourites, simply because I think the least favourites will be a bit more fun, so I’m saving those for later.

The Daleks emerge from the Sphere in 'Army of Ghosts'co-5. “Doomsday”. David Tennant (tenth Doctor), season 28, 2006. Written by Russell T Davies; directed by Graeme Harper.

I struggled really hard picking between “Doomsday” and “Remembrance of the Daleks”, then realised that actually, the only authority that gets to decide how many stories I list in my five favourite Dalek stories is me. So. Of the two, if I had to, I’d probably take “Remembrance” as the better story, but I’d be heartbroken to leave out “Doomsday”. The first episode (titled “Army of Ghosts”) has, hands down, the best cliffhanger Doctor Who has managed since 1988–I put it at number ten of my favourite television cliffhangers ever. Its other best moment is when the Daleks start trash-talking the Cyber Leader–a moment clearly inspired by the commentary from Terrence Dicks and Peter Davison on “The Five Doctors” DVD, which must have inspired Russell T Davies to agree with Our Terrence and make it a part of the Doctor Who canon, once and for all, that Daleks are more badass than Cybermen.

Ace attacks an Imperial Dalek with a baseball batco-5. “Remembrance of the Daleks”. Sylvester McCoy (seventh Doctor), season 25, 1988. Written by Ben Aaronovitch; directed by Andrew Morgan.

Officially “Silver Nemesis” was Doctor Who’s twenty-fifth anniversary story, but that was just so they could put silver in the title–it’s “Remembrance” that’s the real anniversary story. The Doctor and Ace return to Shoreditch in 1963, mere hours after a pair of teachers from Coal Hill School, Ian and Barbara, followed one of their pupils, Susan, into strangely humming police call box and found themselves whisked off to Neanderthal times with Susan’s mysterious grandfather–in Doctor Who’s very first episode, “An Unearthly Child”. Now, in 1963, the Doctor and Ace discover suburban London caught up in a Dalek civil war, as a pair of factions vie for possession of a powerful Time Lord artefact the Doctor and Susan left behind on their prior visit here. It’s a continuity-fest utterly inaccessible to the casual viewer (hence why it’s at number five), but it’s incredible fun. The final appearance of Michael Sheard (Admiral Ozzel in The Empire Strikes Back), who had appeared as a string of guest characters in the 1970s in such stories as “Pyramids of Mars” and “The Invisible Enemy”, and the first appearance of William Thomas, the only actor (so far) to have appeared in Classic Who, New Who and Torchwood. The first time we see Daleks levitate (camera trickery had been used to achieve the effect in “Revelation of the Daleks”, but here special effects actually allow us to see a Dalek glide up the stairs).

'Revelation of the Daleks'4. “Revelation of the Daleks”. Colin Baker (sixth Doctor), season 22, 1985. Written by Eric Saward; directed by Graeme Harper.

If I were to try to get a New Who adherent interested in the programme’s first 26 seasons, I’d start with “Revelation of the Daleks”–because if the story had never got made in the 1980s, they could take Eric Saward’s script and shoot it, without rewrites (except for a search-and-replace to change “Peri” to “Amy”), today. It is perfectly-pitched dark comedy, a macabre, science-fictional horror story. It’s “funeral parlour–of the future!”, the same way the RTD era gave us “hospital–of the future!”, “rush hour–of the future!” and “library–of the future!” It’s directed by the only director to have helmed episodes of both the classic programme and the new programme. (He directed “Doomsday”, above.) The story turns on its bizarre, bizarre characters: the creepy, ugly, womanising funeral director; his overweight assistant, besotted with him, the only woman he won’t flirt with; the Laurel and Hardy workers who show a cruel sadism when they’re given the chance; the obvious Don-Quixote-and-Sancho analogues of the aging assassin and his squire. The character of the goofy radio DJ obsessed with the rock’n’roll music he constantly plays to the funeral parlour’s corpses is pure Russell T Davies, though I do wonder if the New Era would have been able to turn him into the tragic hero he becomes in his final scene. It’s even falls during season 22, so it’s in two 45-minute episodes rather than four 25-minute episodes.

Dalek in front of Big Ben3. The Dalek Invasion of Earth“. William Hartnell (first Doctor), season 2, 1964. Written by Terry Nation; directed by Richard Martin.

The Daleks are never more of a Nazi-analogue than they are here, in their second appearance. It’s essentially a science fiction take on a Nazi occupation of Britain, and it combines its chilling portrayal of that with some of Doctor Who’s most iconic images ever, the Daleks rolling through Trafalgar Square or across Westminster Bridge. I’ve reviewed “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” at length on the past; click on the link above to read it.

The Dalek and Rose2. “Dalek”. Christopher Eccleston (ninth Doctor), season 27, 2005. Written by Robert Shearman; directed by Joe Ahearne.

The reintroduction of the Daleks for the first time in the revived Doctor Who series is just about as perfect as a Dalek story can get–and it only has a single Dalek in it. It’s basically a retelling of Alien, with a significant dollop of King Kong thrown in. That produces a tense, claustrophobic horror story. But what really makes “Dalek” work is the clear determination on the part of everyone involved–the production designers, writer, director, producer–to make sure that the Dalek in “Dalek” really does come across as just as threatening, just as lethal, just as powerful, just as awesome to a 2005 audience as the original iteration of the species did to the 1963 audience back in “The Daleks”. In this, they’re aided by the fact that Daleks had been absent from television screens for sixteen years, and they succeed immaculately. Add what’s probably my favourite homage New Who has ever paid the classic programme, the re-creation of the point-of-view shot that marked the Daleks’ very first appearance in the series, with Rose replacing Barbara.

Davros and the first Daleks1. “Genesis of the Daleks”. Tom Baker (fourth Doctor), season twelve, 1975. Written by Terry Nation, directed by David Maloney.

“Genesis”, in which the Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry find themselves sent back to the final days of the Kaled-Thal War on the planet Skaro in a bid to prevent the creation of the Daleks, is my favourite episode of Doctor Who ever. It’s possibly the most atmospheric piece of television I’ve ever seen–tonally, everything it sets out to achieve, it accomplishes. The claustrophobia of two peoples who live their entire lives in tunnels underground, the world above them torn apart by a thousand years of war. The real sense that the Doctor and his companions have stepped into a time whose events aren’t quite clear to us, though we know their result: the creation of the Daleks. And in the closing episodes, the almost tangible aura of this is all there is left–that these few corridors and the people (and Daleks) in them are the only remainder of Kaled and Thal civilisation. And over the course of the six parts, as we watch two civilisations fall and a thousand-year war end in apocalypse, then see the handful of survivors fight for their lives and the opportunity to start anew, it conveys a sense of the epic that I have very rarely found anywhere else.

The Scholar and the Concubine
Words yesterday: 2239
Words total: 6925

Time spent writing: 1.15-2.45; 8.30-midnight
Reason for stopping: Quota
Darling: A foolish question, but one did not point that out when so august a personage asked it.
Words that boggled Word: taberna, Hagia
New words today: dank, quiver, linen, dean

Cylons and Sithi and Sebaceans, oh my!

This is the place where I’d ordinarily craft a preamble that would lead logically into a list of my five favourite sci fi villains. But since today is the last day of the month, and therefore marks the successful conclusion of my October sally into NaBloPoMo (this year with only one genuine cop-out of a post), and therefore is the 31st consecutive day on which I’ve posted, and therefore I’d like nothing more right this second than to pick up this laptop and drop-kick off the balcony so that it describes a very pretty arc through the air as it descends the thirty-foot slope that drops sharply away from the rear of our building, let’s instead be just a bit postmodern about the whole thing, and tell you straight-out that this post is a list of my five favourite sci fi villains, and then simply get on with the whole thing.

(Stay with me through that whole sentence? Well done.)

Cylon centurion and Six5. Cylons, Battlestar Galactica. I’m speaking here specifically of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, which has aired within the past decade. When the reboot production team set out to reimagine the Battlestar Galactica universe, the most fundamental change they made was to the story’s villain, the Cylons, the race of robots who wipe out human civilisation in the series’s opening episode. No longer were the Cylons of alien origin; now, they were manmade, our servants who had gained sentience and turned on their masters. And the face of the Cylons was no longer the lifeless, metal visage of a Centurion warrior, but instead the twelve different models of human Cylon, androids who looked, sounded and even registered medically as completely human, who felt emotions and who could move invisibly among the real humans, but who when killed would simply have their consciousnesses downloaded into a new body. I think the key facet in Battlestar Galactica’s success is that it is a story of its time, of the post-9/11 world. And the human Cylons play into that perfectly–the suspicion, the paranoia, the witch-hunts brought about by not knowing if the person next to you, apparently your friend, could in fact be your enemy, an enemy who has no fear of death because they know that death will only lead to their own resurrection.

4. The Storm King, the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy by Tad Williams. As a writer, I am intensely jealous of Ineluki the Storm King. He is the perfect villain: an evil, implacable, formless elemental force, possessed of great power, whose only goal is the complete destruction of humanity–and yet we sympathise with him. The tragedy of his fate tugs at us–that he had once been a member of the beautiful, peaceful, immortal elven race, the Sithi, and that it was a last, unsuccessful attempt to save the Sithi from genocide at the hands of humanity that led to his resurrection as a being of sheer malevolence. We can’t even really condemn him for wanting to revenge himself on humanity by wreaking our destruction.

Scorpius and Captain Crais3. Peacekeepers, Farscape. It is part of the central genius of Farscape that when American John Crichton finds himself stranded in a distant part of the universe, all the alien races he encounter look nothing like us–all except for the Peacekeepers, the ruthless, efficient, hierarchical mercenary military organisation whose various representatives hunt Crichton relentlessly over the course of the series. In other words, the only characters who look human in Farscape (apart from the two central characters, Crichton and renegade Peacekeeper Aeryn Sun) are the bad guys. In addition to the baseline appeal of that idea, there’s also the fact that it aids drama considerably–every new alien the main characters encounter assumes Crichton is a Sebacean (the Peacekeepers’ species), and therefore distrusts him; and Crichton is able to disguise himself and infiltrate the Peacekeepers when the situation warrants. And besides all that, the Peacekeepers are just deeply cool–all black leather with red accents, and warships whose bridges are decorated in a 1930s industrial art deco motif.

Darth Vader2. Darth Vader, Star Wars. Our society doesn’t do narrative tragedy anymore, and that’s a shame. While it’s certainly true, as well know, that George Lucas knew that A New Hope was in fact the middle of the Star Wars story even when it was released in 1977, it’s not true that the Star Wars story was always the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker. When, in A New Hope, Ben Kenobi tells Luke that his apprentice Darth Vader turned to evil and “betrayed and murdered your father”, he meant that quite literally, regardless of one’s point of view. It was only during the writing of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi that the full story was developed, including Vader’s true identity and his relationship to Luke and Leia. I think it’s no accident that during that process, Star Wars as a story shifted its emphasis steadily until Darth Vader is indisputably its main character. That shift reflected Darth Vader’s popularity, and his appeal both to storytellers and their audiences–because, like Ineluki the Storm King, he is a genuinely tragic figure. He turns the Dark Side because of motives we can all identify with and even applaud; in the end, he’s redeemed, but because of all the awful things he’s done in the meantime, that redemption can only come through death.

Three Daleks1. The Daleks, Doctor Who. It’s chic in certain circles nowadays to be tired of Daleks, to declare that they’re overrated. Pish tosh, I say. Daleks are badass. They turned a low-budget educational children’s show into one of the world’s two most science fiction franchises, now approaching its fiftieth year. They spawned two spin-off movies of their own. They appear in the Oxford. English. Dictionary. You don’t accomplish all that without being badass. Everyone always has a hypothesis to explain their universal appeal; I think it’s a combination of a number of factors. There’s their obvious function as Nazi-analogues; Nazis, with their combination of coolness, discipline and loathsome evilness, are simply always going to be appealing (so appealing that Republican congressional candidates dress up like them). Tying in with that, there’s the fact that they are essentially bullies–so relentless and invincible inside their travel machines, but with a powerless, pathetic little blob of a lifeform, the Kaled Mutant, inside them. (I’ve heard it hypothesised that every child identifies with the Kaled Mutant; that they all want to climb inside a Mark III Travel Machine and exterminate their parents and their teachers.) And chiefly, I think it’s that their utterly devoid of anything anthropoid in their appearance–they’re totally alien. No legs. No head. No humanoid limbs. That intonationless, wobulated voice.

Basically, they’re badass.

I

What we watch

TelevisionOne of the ways the DVR has changed me–and Lisa–is that we now watch much less TV. The TV we do watch is all recorded on the DVR, watched anywhere from fifteen minutes after it airs to several months; this means that we fast forward through the adverts, so we simply aren’t aware of upcoming shows we might want to try. And honestly, I’m pretty happy about that–I much prefer having less TV in my life.

Here’s what we do watch right now:

Both of us
Doctor Who
Glee
Mad Men (Lisa is only in season two)
Saturday Night Live
The Simpsons and other Fox cartoons
The Big Bang Theory
Modern Family

Me
Mad Men (I am current)
Caprica

Lisa
Grey’s Anatomy
Private Practice
The Good Wife
The Secret Life of the American Teenager

I

DVD

As I remind my readers every month, I’m in the process of assembling my music library for my iPod. I keep a list of all the songs I’ve yet to own, and every month I spend a certain amount of money getting songs from that list.

I used to do the same thing with DVDs. I have a list of all the TV shows and movies I want to have at my fingertips whenever I want to watch them, and every month I would buy two or three of them. But then I stopped.

I believe strongly that an artist has the right to be paid for the enjoyment of their art. “I want it but I don’t want to spend the money that costs” is not a sufficient justification to me for stealing that art.

But I’m only willing to pay a fair price, and it occurred to me that DVDs simple aren’t priced fairly. In ten years, they’re going to be as obsolete as CDs. It’s going to be as universal to download our movies as it is to download our music. (It’s pretty commonplace now.) So I’m no longer willing to pay $20 for a physical copy of a movie that should only cost me $10 to get online.

This doesn’t mean I download my movies now, either legally or illegally. One of the things about coming to a decision not to buy DVDs anymore was that it forced me to consider whether or not buying movies at all was worth the expense, and I decided that I really don’t watch any given movie enough to justify how much it costs to download it. And the thing about downloads is, if I decide there really is a movie I want to watch right now, I can just go get it instantly, rather than driving to the shop (and potentially having to wait six hours for it to open, since I’ve decided I want to watch the movie at 2AM).

The one exception is Doctor Who. I’ve started buying Doctor Who DVDs again, right now at the rate of three a month. This came from a trip to Barnes & Noble, where I came across all the Who DVDs that had been released since I stopped buying DVDs two years ago. Thumbing through them brought back to me how much fun it had been to watch all that Classic Who for the first time in fifteen years. And besides, The Boy and I have such fun watching the new purchases early in every month.

I

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